Tuesday, August 09, 2005

If Hitler Hadn't Invaded Poland, Would Anybody Care?

In Their Silence They Cry Out
--Cicero


One of the attorneys at my law firm knows a woman who grew up in Germany during World War II. She just published a book, and our attorney brought her in to speak about her experiences on the matter. I think about genocide a lot (cheery guy that I am), so this once again spurred my mind to reflect on how America reacts to mass murder.

It occurred to me that the Holocaust is really rather unique amongst genocides in the psychic impact it has on the world. Several reasons have been given for this: The fact that it was not committed in a spate of ethnic rioting (like, say Rwanda), but was a calmly and deliberately planned massacre spanning around a decade; the sheer universality of it, how it expressly targeted every Jew on the planet for elimination; the fact that the "image" of the victim was white and middle class (as opposed to an ethnic minority we can effectively divorce from our own experience), etc. etc..

But it occurs to me that the biggest distinguishing factor between the Holocaust and other genocides is that we experienced it first hand, albeit as a third party. US and Russian troops were the ones that liberated the concentration camps. Thousands of young men saw first hand the horror that had been inflicted upon the Jews--this helped lead to the moral outrage that created Nuremberg and "never again."

But what if none of that had happened? What if Hitler had never invaded Poland at all, but had just quietly sat within his borders and carried out an extermination there?

It's relatively clear that Hitler's pathological hatred of Jews and his megalomaniacal desire to rule the world are intertwine, but also separable. The establishment of the first concentration camp (Dachau) predates any aggressive actions by Germany by several years, as do many of the early anti-Semitic laws, moreover, Hitler consistently acted to kill as many Jews as possible even when it harmed the war effort (e.g., using trains needed to ferry supplies to the front to transport Jews to death camps instead). So it's no answer to say that absent the war, Hitler wouldn't have engaged in genocide--he probably would have. A smaller scale, to be sure, but the amount of German Jews killed alone approaches 200,000.

Looking at the American reaction to other genocides, we can relatively safely say that our reaction to this hypothetical would have been...very little. From Armenia to Cambodia to Rwanda, genocide that does not immediately affect American interests tends to attract little attention. For whatever reason, the requisite empathy for other persons appears simply absent. Even when there is press coverage as the genocide is on-going (like in Darfur now), we...do...not...care. Sure, we make condemnations. Big deal. Has there been any serious talk of military intervention? Agreement to airlift out refugees and give them asylum within the US? We cry and sigh, and they still die. It's shameful.

Examining how America acted even during the real WWII lends credence to this hypothesis. America refused to let in Jewish refugees (recall the plight of the S.S. St. Louis), nor did they directly condemn the horrors perpetuated against Jews (Roma, Poles, and others as well) specifically (making only vague mention to wartime excesses). Indeed, even granting wartime constraints, the US response to the Holocaust (which we did know about) was anemic--even before we entered the war at all. This is not to absolve the rest of the world--with a few exceptions (Singapore, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden come to mind)--all failed in this basic test of human dignity. But being an American blog with mostly American readers, this should require a hard look at ourselves.

The vast majority of abuses in the world have absolutely nothing to do with us. We can ignore them, and nothing bad will happen to us. The screams of the raped, mutilated and murder don't fall upon deaf ears, they don't even reach the ears at all (being drowned out by Michael Jackson and the latest Celeb hookup). In fact, there is only one way these atrocities have anything to do with us:

America has the power to stop them.

If we through our collective weight in the global system in a complete and absolute opposition to genocide, we could make a difference. If America's leaders knew their citizens would stand by and make the sacrifice so that others might live, we could make a difference. It isn't necessarily throwing troops into every nation on the planet who doesn't meet ideal human rights standards. It's about using our tremendous leverage in the global community to force other nations to act with the basic decency and humanity that anybody can expect.

It's difficult, because it involves looking out for number two, at no tangible benefit to number one.

In prior posts, I've been talking a lot about standpoint theory and how perspective informs analysis. For example, the author, the woman who was a German child during World War II, at one point warned us that we must be wary of those who use propaganda and drew a parallel to the "illegal and unjust" war that America is currently engaged in. It's been noted that in the wake of the Holocaust, Germany has a severe aversion to the use of armed force in any situation--it always sees it's own shadow--and this was a perfect manifestation of that. At the same time, I marveled at how my own perspective, reflecting on the same series of events but informed by my Jewishness, led me to the exact opposite conclusion. I do not fear unrestrained aggression, I fear a world that can not bring itself to care enough for those crying out for its aid. America turned its back on me--I will not turn my back on the next generation of victims. And hence, that's why I supported the war in Iraq--the horror of Saddam Hussein's sadistic regime struck far too close to home. Perhaps we could contain Saddam. So what? All that means is that we can safely ignore him while he slaughters more of his own people. Containment is the vanguard of aversion--a Saddam we don't have to pay attention to is a Saddam whose crimes will continue on and on.

For me, that's an intolerable situation.

Do you have the courage to care?

1 comment:

hf said...

Short answer: I oppose the war because I'm not willing to die for it. (And because I'm a Heinlein fan.) I might feel compelled to enlist if I felt sure the new government would protect the rights of women and minorities in Iraq -- in other words, if the war would even improve matters for all of the (innocent, surviving) Iraqis.